Natural Cold & Flu Remedies: Do They Work?
Find easy ways to make yourself better when battling winter germs
Immune-boosting supplements may help strengthen your body's defense system
With the increased attention on the cold-and-flu season this year has predictably come stronger claims on both ends of the treatment spectrum: from those who cling fervently to favorite remedies that may or may not be supported by research, to conservative practitioners who dismiss anything but flu shots and decongestants as a waste of time and money.
As might be expected, for many people the answer lies somewhere in between: There is simply too much research to completely dismiss some traditional remedies, but not enough to call any one treatment an actual "cure." While it is common to have studies with differing results, it is important to look at both the study details and the entire body of research to really understand what they are telling us. Keep in mind too that sometimes "a lack of evidence" means that a treatment has simply not been studied, but traditional use may in some cases suggest benefit.
1. Boost immunity with supportive supplements
While evidence on the effectiveness for preventing infections is mixed, immune-boosting supplements may help strengthen your body's defense system. A short list includes:
- Vitamin C--Studies have shown a higher-than-normal dose of 1,000 to 2,000 mg per day may make your cold shorter and milder. (These amounts are tolerated by most people but may cause diarrhea in others, so pay attention to how your body reacts.)
- Homeopathic remedies for the cold and flu--Products such as Oscillococcinum may decrease severity and duration of flu symptoms.
- Echinacea--At the onset of a cold or flu, 3 to 4 ml of echinacea in a liquid preparation or 300 mg of a powdered form in capsule or tablet can be taken every two hours for the first day of illness, then three times per day for a total of seven to ten days. Though inconclusive, some studies have shown it may shorten the duration of a cold in adults. It has not been shown to be effective for children.
- Zinc lozenges--Lozenges containing zinc gluconate, zinc gluconate-glycine, or zinc acetate, providing 13 to 25 mg every two hours, may help slow the cold virus and shorten the illness. (Avoid zinc sprays, however, as recent reports confirm that they may sometimes seriously damage sense of smell.)
- Andrographis--Studies have supported using 48 to 60 mg of standardized andrographolides (the active constituent in this herb) in two to three divided doses daily to improve cold symptoms.
Remember, if you are managing other health conditions with medicine, ask your doctor or pharmacist to check for interactions.
2. Get your Zs and your fluids
In addition to the common courtesy of keeping your germs to yourself and thereby not infecting coworkers and schoolmates, Dr. Woodson Merrell of Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City advises staying home if you are ill. "You are more likely to rest and drink more fluids in an unstructured home environment," she says.
- Stay hydrated--Noncaffeinated, nonalcoholic drinks, including water and low-sugar juices, may help loosen and clear out mucus, soothe a sore throat, and replace fluid loss due to a fever or runny nose. Warm liquids, like herbal teas or soups, not only hydrate but their heat may also help fight off the infection and relieve congestion. According to Jane Lininger, DC, hot ginger tea with lemon and honey may help decongest and just generally make you feel better.
- Take it easy--Lie down, stay warm, and sleep if you feel tired. This keeps all the body's energy available for combating the virus. If you have trouble relaxing, dim the lights, watch your favorite movie, or take a bath.
3. Don't dry out--humidity helps
Because the cold and flu thrive in cold, dry environments, you can help boot out the virus infection by staying warm and raising humidity levels. Also, at very low levels of humidity, the nose mucus dries up and isn't able to defend as well against harmful viruses and bacteria.
- Use a nasal mist to keep your nose mucus moist. A saline rinse with a "neti pot" has been shown in some studies to decrease sick time.
- Use a humidifier at work and home.
- Warm your hands and face over the rising steam as you sip your herbal tea.